” Live long and prosper.” – from Star Trek
” What in the world would make anyone think the boomer generation would suddenly start following the rules just because we’re getting a Social Security check?” – Richard Croker ” The Boomer Century: 1946-2046
” On a bad day, there’s always lipstick.” – Audrey Hepburn
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, beginning on New Year’s Day, 2011, ten-thousand baby boomers a day were turning 65 and those numbers will continue for the next nineteen years. In short, despite all the drugs, alcohol, and inhalation of toxic chemicals, it means the boomers aren’t dropping off at the usual rate. Maybe it was the breakfast cereals and Wonder Bread we always saw advertised in our tender years, but whatever the elixir, Nine million baby boomers will survive into their late 90s and 3 million will reach one hundred.
No person with a shred of sanity will dispute that us boomers (born between 1946-64) are the coolest people in history; or challenge the surefire conviction that we grew up listening to the coolest music. Nothing before and after even comes close. And as the Star Trek quote and statistics at the outset indicate, the boomer generation boasts of longevity; whether it is prospering or not is open to dispute. At the front end of our demographic surge we were born when Harry Truman was president, at the very tail end, there was Lyndon Johnson, who we deemed as a somewhat alien creature. Squeezed in between was Dwight Eisenhower, America really “liked Ike”, and a cool president named John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
The first birth pangs of our generation echoed through the hospital halls when the soldiers returned home from a momentous conflict and began procreating with ardor. Within two decades a marvelous little pill permitted the ardor without the procreating part and the baby boom dribbled to a close. Things went up and things came down and when the dust or the copulation equivalent settled, over 75 million potential rock n’ roll junkies were crammed into the two decades of energetic reproduction. Sacred cows fell by the wayside as the upstarts redefined sexual mores and fractured the long-standing sexual canon. They would also propel massive change in the entertainment and commercial landscape. In the nascent boomer years, television was largely just a curiosity, within a decade it was almost mandatory for households. And oh yes, we had the coolest TV shows, like The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive, and a dozen or so more; with rare exceptions, nothing has come close since. If the excitement became all too much, there was Anacin and Bayer to cure the headache; the commercials told us so. It would be remiss not to mention a string of sensational movies. Us boomers were treated to the deluxe selection. Try and top this, Alfred Hitchcock with The Birds and Psycho. After watching them, when your heart rate returned to normal, you could relax to Breakfast at Tiffany’s (thanks to Audrey and a beguiling open with Moon River in the background), then you could crank up the pulse again with the Bond movies; Bond, James Bond. Sorry, nobody did the role better than Sean Connery. Whew! We definitely needed to cool it down; so we did, with Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Then there was that music, Elvis, the Beatles, Hendrix … Rock n’ roll was here to stay, and it was ours.
With all that on the cultural menu a mutinous streak was inevitable. The quarrelsome tone started out tentatively, reached a crescendo, and now with the government safety net checks arriving, it is clear the boomers aren’t exiting quietly. Rightly or wrongly, the generation is defined by their rejection of the prescribed social consensus. Who could have seen it coming? For nearly a decade after the war obedient short-haired boys and girls without blemish marched off to church, usually a Protestant one, though once-scorned Catholics were starting to get a place at the table. At the altar of dogma we learned how to love a pro- free market Jesus while we absorbed the gospel of American exceptionalism and how to spot deviants. Salvation temporarily intact, bodily fitness came next. Many youngsters joined the Boy Scouts and learned virtue while eating brownies and gulping down cholesterol clogged milk. There was the female equivalent of the Scouts but whether they ate brownies or not was not disclosed. Still there were goblins afoot. Subversion was a Red menace tactic and by stealth subliminal Marxism crept into everything from comic books to the silver screen. That was the cold part of the plot. Peradventure the Cold War got hot, dutiful students were all trained to dive under dilapidated desks at a moment’s notice should some nefarious Communist sonofabitch get an itch to punch that much-feared nuclear button. It didn’t hurt to whisper a prayer while you waited for the dreaded atomic shoe to drop. At least Americans had the advantage if it came to that. Our team could invoke the Almighty, the godless Reds had no such recourse. My class and many like it had an even bigger advantage as we were crouched under sanctified desks in a Catholic school so we were assured the pleas got priority over the heretic Protestants, Jews, and stray pagans. All those beatings by the nuns not only pounded ethics and faith into us, we got preference on the petition pipeline as a bonus. The payoff was possibly being spared, or at least getting cooked last in an unspeakable nuclear liquidation. We once came close over Cuba, but President Kennedy kept his cool and won the showdown. Saner heads prevailed and no one cashed the doomsday ticket, but that grammar school faith and those ideals would get their first stern test in the 50s and the whole fabric would unravel in those fabulous and fractious 60s.
While conformity seemed the order of the day there were cracks in the edifice. Hugh Hefner started stroking the sex sinews when he established Playboy Magazine in 1953 right after Kinsey told us that luscious Lily in the next Levittown lane was not as straightlaced as we thought. And while Marilyn was making mouths water in that famous inaugural spread and McCarthy was hounding Hollywood, a ” Wild One” roared across the screen in a leather jacket and motorcycle, his name was Marlon, the best of his craft, ever. Rack up another cultural icon for the boomers; yup, Brando, was ours, and he reeked of rebellion. Parents could barely catch their breath as they moved from crisis to crisis. They had to go racing for their Benjamin Spock guide every time a Holden Caulfield or James Dean reared a dissenting head. The hits kept coming and causing more consternation. There was a story about a Mockingbird, and a killing In Cold Blood, before Catch-22 became a permanent part of the lexicon. The boomers had books, truckloads of good ones and cool ones, and in school you had to read them because there were teachers who ” made you an offer you couldn’t refuse.” But nothing could prepare adults for the next round of satanically inspired earth shaking commotion when Elvis arrived on the scene. The souls and torsos of the youth culture were up for grabs (literally?), those teen hormones went into overdrive.
Everywhere you looked there were frisky teenagers. There were 13 million of them by 1956, and abetted by the postwar boom, they had money. Advertisers knew that population was a mother lode, or better stated, a teen lode for discretionary spending. There was an estimated 7 billion dollars a year available to pry loose from those wandering lust-laden hands. Young ladies were practicing to be young women, just a dab of lipstick or two put the right touch to the conversion rites. Revlon offered a new shade every six months. The excitement was palpable. Lose that cherry and trade it in for a pink hue and you too could look like Audrey Hepburn. Well, maybe not, but over 20 million was spent in trying. And odors were out, antiperspirants were in, or on. I told you the boomers were cool. Put another 20 million in the profit pot, compliments of deodorants. Armpits secure from microbial intruders, it was off to the record store. 45’s were all the fashion. After you heard Jerry Lee Lewis on the radio, you could invite him into your home. Figuratively speaking of course. Seventy-five million a year was spent on records.
If anything defined the era, it was the music. Elvis was the first of the rock idols as he brought us Jail House Rock and Hound Dogs, tame enough tissue as he opened the floodgates. Then on February 9, 1964, seventy-three million Americans were in for a national orgasmic viewing treat with teen girls hyperventilating from estrogen overload when the chords to All My Lovin’ resounded. The Beatles had arrived and the youth culture would never be the same, truly all our senses would be stripped. There may have been differences about Vietnam and who should get what rights, but the music was a shared treasure, it offered cords of kinship that bound us. And the tune cup runneth over. You could ride the waves of protest with Baez and Dylan, quake in the Beatles frenzy, go soft pop and surfin’ with the Beach Boys, or flirt cosmic with Hendrix. Let’s do that again. In one decade, Dylan, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Hendrix, and oh, throw in the Stones, Clapton, the Supremes, Otis Redding, Led Zeppelin, CCR, Simon and Garfunkel, the Airplane, and CSN, and of course the immortal Janis. For the frosting, Santana, the Who, and the Eagles were on the horizon, and for those with country inklings, how about Patsy, Willie, and Johnny C. ? I left out a few dozen or so, I know, but point taken, us boomers were not only cool, but we had the coolest music. On our merry cruising way, we could turn on the radio and switch the stations for a feast of choices from ear candy to psychedelia. Shades of American Graffiti if you will.
Music was our religion and it supplied us with a prolonged adolescence. The lyrics said it all: ” Hair flow it, show it. Long as God can grow it …”; we could grow our hair, romp carefree, flirt with lofty idealism, and flutter on the breeze of transcendence. Sigh, they were truly heady times, and it seemed like it could go on forever. It must have been a hallucination. That Woodstock spirit started to sag at a speedway named Altamont, and then the Beatles split up, down went Jimi and Janis and Jim, and a bete noir president resigned. The songs became more somber and self-absorbed, reality warnings flashed that our adolescence was over. The hair stopped growing as long, if it could grow at all. We felt that tug at the heartstrings that we were finite, like our rock stars. Contemplation started replacing fornication. What had we wrought?
Historians imparting different ideological slants exchange verbal bombs over the boomer repercussions. Those from the conservative camp see a moral wasteland, a consensus carnage. This scornful reactionary critique blame the hardships and misfortunes of today on the excesses of the boomers, the “Me Generation” who pilfered and didn’t ante up. ( The stats don’t back that up. The boomers were and are actually very philanthropic. See Richard Croker – The Boomer Century) Free love fractured the family so the story goes. Those of right-wing persuasion seem to have a fetish for the sexual organs. To hear them tell it, it was boomer carnality that was the cause of every woe on the planet. My God! You would think our predecessors walked straight out of a Margaret Atwood novel and coitus ran by the clock. Assume the missionary position: Ready, aim, fire, Done! Leave a little dew on the lily and off to congratulations at the men’s club.
Women were the most culpable in the degeneration. It was mostly those of feminist stripes who doomed the apron to the dustbin and even had the audacity to demand equal pay and become doctors, lawyers, and legislators. Surely society couldn’t stand the shockwaves. It was bad enough that women didn’t know their place, neither did blacks and other minorities. When in doubt, blame the communists or other firebrands. One look at Abby Hoffman or H. Rap Brown provoked outrage. The social ramparts were stormed, the center didn’t hold, and chaos was reared in the wake of all the ruckus. My goodness, you would think we erred at every turn and as payback we got Trump.
More generous judgments find much to be praised. There was wreckage to be sure and the music turned downright mortifying … Justin Bieber for Christ’s sake. But even with the wrong turns and the scourge of Reality TV, there was progress on many fronts. In 1963, Bull Connor met his match in Birmingham when he squared off with the heroic Martin Luther King Jr. A poster child for Southern racism, Connor with his fire-hoses won the battle, King won the war. The public galvanized behind him and within a year, a Civil Rights Act would be passed. A boxer named Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most iconic figure in the history of sports, challenged the plantation mentality. It would cost him dearly, but he would prevail. There was a message to be had – you can stand up to the system and you can win. The times they were a changin’. Women threw down the gauntlet, the era of being treated as second-class citizens was spent. Equal meant equal, it’s an ongoing battle but at least it is being waged. For every hideous screech owl like Anne Coulter there is a Rachel Maddow. There is a counteroffensive to turn back the clock, Supreme Court decisions bear watching. But the boomers bequest was immutable: hit us and we hit back.
The historical verdict is still pending on the boomers, it will no doubt see many revisions. There were the illusions, thank you Aquarius, pleasant thoughts but the utopia was a chimera. There was senseless mayhem with riots that crippled cities, and radical factions with their penchant for anarchy and violence, entreaties for a revolution but no solutions. Blots on the boomer account for sure. But they did rise to the occasion to protest an unjust war, they did shake the windows and rattled the walls and politicians and presidents sat up and took notice. However imperfectly, they assaulted the bastions of discrimination, it would never be consigned to the backburner again. That is their greatest and proudest legacy, voices can and will be heard. The boomers were and are a cantankerous bunch, of that there is no dispute, and now the coolest generation ever still play their oldies as they speed through a Stop sign on the way to the bank to deposit that Social Security check.